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Carlins: Rediscovering a Landmark in Ayer, Massachusetts

Carlins Tavern, Ayer, Massachusetts

Carlins Tavern, Ayer.

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 1/11/18.

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The scene at Carlins in Ayer, Mass., looks forever familiar, but, at the same time, offers something wonderfully different, unlike any other time in its history dating back to 1933.

The long bar, drinks selection, drinking buddy conversations, friendly local staff and timeless, classic Main Street tavern exterior are well intact and keep long-time faithful locals coming back. On the other hand, a growing professional business community at nearby Devens, families moving to Ayer and vicinity, a military contingent remaining from the days of a fully operating Fort Devens and others seeking good dining options see Carlins in a new light, as opposed to its dimly-lit barroom past.  The transformation is more loud and clear than the rock music that once played at higher decibels in this renowned drinking establishment version from the past.

Carlins has gone beyond hot dogs and frozen pizza heated up in the kitchenette oven to offer an appealing restaurant menu for lunch and dinner that showcases foods made from scratch. The interior, while still somewhat dimly-lit, shows increased signs of brightness, literally and figuratively, as this beloved local landmark becomes more of a family-friendly restaurant. You can see the excitement in owner Dave Berry's thoughtful, articulate voice and in his hometown eyes, knowing he has expanded upon that his father Phillip's vision of running a popular, respected establishment since 1973, as did the Carlin family prior to that.

"The tavern had undergone a number of transitions during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam as a military bar, biker bar and a place for entertainment," said Berry. "It was time for a next generation vision."

Berry started working in the family-owned restaurant at 12-years-old, but for many years never envisioned a career in the industry. Trained as a fine artist, Berry earned bachelor's and master's degrees in sculpting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Mass., and, at one point, had a large, beautiful spherical sculpture featured on the front lawn of the famed DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. Not exactly a starving artist, Berry still realized that more of a steady career would better benefit his growing family. He returned home to Main Street by assuming oversight of the restaurant that his father so lovingly crafted through the years.

Berry realized, however, that the old school version of Carlins needed further schooling to meet the needs of the new face of Ayer -- that is, by offering an eating and drinking establishment with a foot in the 21st century and reducing the need to drive into the city or somewhere else out of town for a similar dining experience. He closed the restaurant for several months and worked hard to create a new image for Carlins. In October 2017, Carlins reopened with a new, significant place within its own historic time line.

"My dad is excited for me," said Berry. "This is the next generation. We have a new vision. We want to appeal to everyone by offering families and individuals a clean restaurant with reasonably-priced food in a family-friendly atmosphere. We definitely needed to move in a different direction. Times and attitudes have changed. We no longer have a transient population from the military (installation). We need to appeal to the next generation as Ayer has changed."

While still more bottle of beer than Botticelli, Carlins has also definitely benefited from Berry's artistic eye. A new countertop paints a more attractive look for the bar area, while the small, cozy dining room takes on better aesthetics with brighter colors and more complementary decor.  A new, full kitchen better frames the former kitchenette area, and the 30-seat outdoor patio comes across as a fabulous-looking assemblage for the warmer seasons.

Dining room at Carlins in downtown Ayer, Massachusetts.
Carlins dining room. Photo by Sierra Young.

Additionally, Ayer plans to build a community park adjacent to Carlins -- a potentially perfect scenario for those wanting to grab a bite right next to this future green space in a increasingly revitalized downtown district.

Outdoor patio at Carlins in downtown Ayer, Massachusetts
Carlins outdoor dining patio.
Photo by Sierra Young.

General manager Sierra Young perfectly complements Berry's restaurant vision by bringing a strong managerial approach to the restaurant. Only 27, the friendly Acton native already possesses several years in the restaurant industry. Young has all the earmarks of a tremendous manager -- a good listener, kind to fellow employees, assertive more than aggressive, faithful to ownership, and committed to customer service.  She worked at, and gained manager's experience at The 99 Restaurants in Westford and West Concord, Mass., and like, Berry, saw the vast potential in a "new Carlins."

"We make everything from scratch and look to source more locally soon," said Young. "This is just the beginning and I think people are really going to like what we have to offer. We are already accomplishing that."

Carlins' menu is a work in progress -- a starter menu, at this point -- but still satisfies by offering dishes better than what is found at similar restaurants in the area.  I recently tried a bacon cheddar burger with applewood smoked bacon and homemade roasted garlic aioli that ranks among the best personally experienced -- mouthwatering and with that perfectly seasoned char-grilled taste (and huge!). Many of those new burger places that perceive themselves as being really good should embark on a field trip to Carlins to take notes and receive a "101 education" on what a burger should taste like, and also to be reminded that servers and bartenders who are kind and humble are preferred to those with elite attitudes. That friendly staff has gone a long way in making Carlins such a likable destination.

Cheddar burger with homemade garlic aioli from Carlins in Ayer, Massachusetts.
Cheddar burger with bacon and garlic aioli sauce from Carlins.

Appetizer items, at this writing, include deviled eggs, zucchini chips, poutine, grilled bone-in wings and boneless chicken tenders. Featured dinners: pulled pork sliders, meatballs and crostini, grilled marinated steak tips and a "Not Your Father's BLT" with bacon atop a spring mix with fresh tomato and garlic aioli. Carlins also serves a Caesar salad, steak tip Caesar, and garden salad.

Steak tips from Carlins in Ayer, Massachusetts.
Steak tip dinner from Carlins. Photo by Sierra Young.

For those concerned about the drinks element fading into the sunset at Carlins, quite the opposite is true. A 24 draft beer system including 21 craft beers and three old-standby domestics brings more options that quite frankly, no could could have ever envisioned many years ago at Carlins. It all makes sense, though, as Carlins opened the day after the Twenty First amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed the 18th Amendment -- in other words, lifting a 13-year nationwide prohibition of alcohol near the end of 1933.

"Yes, we will always have drinks, " said Young. "We don't forget where we came from."

Renovated bar area tat Carlins in downtown Ayer, Massachusetts.
New bar area at Carlins.
Photo by Sierra Young.

For those that know the Ayer area well, it was common to hear something after the work day to the effect of, "Hey, we're headed out to Carlins for some drinks. Wanna come along?" Today, or in the very new future, those words will be, no doubt, changed to "Hey, we're headed out to Carlins for a home-cooked meal and some drinks. Wanna come along -- and don't forget to bring the family?"

As Berry puts it, "This is not your father's Carlins."

Carlins is located at 7 Depot Square in Ayer, MA. Tel. (978) 772-2317.  Web site: Facebook fan page: Twitter page: Carlins hours: Tuesdays 3 p.m.- 12:30 a.m. | Wednesday through Fridays: 3 p.m.-1:30 a.m. | Saturdays: 11a.m.-1:30a.m. | Sundays 11a.m.- 12:30a.m.

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Carlins Tavern in Ayer, Mass., is no longer just a bar, having taken great strides to become more of a family-friendly full service restaurant.

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What it's like to dine at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, Mass.

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